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The Summer-House at Buckingham Palace
The Athenaeum, July 19, 1845: 719-20.
An invitation to inspect this much-talked-of building and its decorations having been forwarded to us, we may now, without impropriety, report on them.
It must, we apprehend, strike every one that this kiosque, or cottage, or pavilion (the building has a trace of all these styles), has been planned on the principle of Miss Edgeworth's Mrs. Raffarty, who desired, in her Tusculum, to have "a little of everything." The structure comprises three rooms:--an octagonal one given up to Milton's 'Comus,' framed by every conceivable sort of arabesques--a closet on the left devoted to Scott's romances--and a corresponding one on the right to Pompeii. In the two first-mentioned chambers there is a profusion of minute and oddly-assembled ornament--plaster medallions of mythological figures, or of insects, such as frogs, flies, &c.--stucco borders, with gilding intermixed, painted caprices in encaustic--here glimpses of a sky, of more intense blue than is ever seen in London, through eight mock circular windows--there painted landscapes, in painted frames, hung by painted ribbons, among painted festoons of flowers; the said flowers--tulip, auriculas, &c.--being comparatively so huge as to put the features of the delicately-touched landscapes (Highland scenery) entirely "out of court." Then there are white medallions of Scott's Eveline Berengers, and Jeannie Deanses, and little white caryatid Cupids, with gild draperies--walls in imitation of grey marble, beaded by commonplace upholsterer's gilt beading--doors of burnished satin-wood--and a floor of tartan tiles, with a thistle border. In short, the mind aches at the want of presiding principle, with its consequent want of general effect. This may sound uncourtly; but it is short of, rather than beyond, the truth.
Having expressed our judgment, that as a specimen of decoration, this summer-house is a failure, we will speak of the 'Comus' frescoes and of the encaustic paintings, as works of Art, separated (as far as is possible) from the overcharged multiplicity of petty and heterogeneous ornament by which they are surrounded. Three of them (by Mr. Maclise, Mr. Eastlake, and Mr. Leslie) have been already noticed when the designs were exhibited at the Academy. We shall, therefore, only add, that in all, the oil was more satisfactory than the fresco. Mr. Leslie's, indeed, already gives signs of decay. Hard by this is a composition by Mr. Uwins; who has chosen the moment when the Lady is lost in the wood, with Comus discovered lurking in ambuscade. With a fair portion of effect as a whole, we cannot acquit the female figure of a massiveness of contour at variance with the poet's text. The execution is loose and sketchy, so far as we could judge (this being one of three which hang in the worst light--to say nothing of the distracting filagree of ornaments round it): and it appears as if some of the half tints had sunk. Sir William Ross has "done for" the entry of the Brothers, since his composition does not rise beyond commonplace book-illustration, while, as a piece of painting, it is as far below the mark. Mr. Stanfield has designed a beautiful landscape; but fresco is not the fit medium for executing such a subject. Mr. Dyce's contribution is the best of the eight. Leaving the faëry work of the Masque to the more florid fancy of Mr. Maclise and Mr. Landseer, he has contented himself with picturing the presentation of the two Brothers and the Lady to their father and mother, while the attendant Spirit sings,
Noble Lord and Lady bright,
In treating this passage, Mr. Dyce has observed that reserve, without pedantic dryness, which befits well his material. His composition is graceful, simple, and full of intelligence, and his colouring rich without trickery; the very small size of the heads having, apparently, enabled him to evade the difficulty he has obviously found in the flesh of the larger specimen at Westminster Hall.
We must lastly speak of Mr. Landseer's design: which is the rabble rout of brutified creatures who serve the Enchanter: a rich, coarse, and voluptuous piece of imagination. As all the world knows, Mr. Landseer, in his literal pictures, exhibits just that amount of flattery of brute intelligence, which raises appetite almost to the level of desire. Here, accordingly, he has very permissibly exaggerated the subtlety of one animal head, the grossness of another, &c., till the power of the whole rivets and revolts the gazer. As regards the execution, though Mr. Landseer has allowed himself a softened outline which gives the appearance of indecision to portions of his work, and even suggests the idea of oil having been used to retouch and enrich--his marvelous command over texture has not failed him. The enchanted ladies, the prostrate monster in the foreground, and the huge creature bearing the light, are given with great ease and richness. We cannot satisfy our minds that the boundaries of legitimate grotesque have been observed--but there can be no doubt of the skill with which the conception is wrought up to. There is one other fresco, which we were shown: of which we would gladly not speak. But as the press has, on hearsay, taken up the cause of the displaced work by Mr. Etty, and thereupon vented no small quantity of pasquinade, the justice, which is due alike of Prince and Painter, leaves the critic no alternative. The work was certainly not worthy of its place. The composition is not the one exhibited at the Royal Academy, the reason of such change not being explained; the drawing is bad, and the colouring thin, coarse and earthy. The directors of the works have had no choice save to let this picture be seen; but having cited its defects in defence of a sentence which, to the outer world, has seemed at once discourteous and capricious, we shall forget it as fast as we can, for the artist's sake.
The designs from Scott's novels, in the small room, are so small, and ill placed, and lighted, that we are hardly able to report on them. They are by Messrs. Townsend, Stonhouse, James Doyle, Richard Doyle, who has given the forest ride of Prior Aylmer and Bois de Guilbert with a grace and sprit promising capital things; and Mr. Severn, who will hardly forgive us for saying that his design of Edith Plantagenet, in the Chapel of Mount Carmel, dropping a rose bud at the feet of the Knight of the Leopard, is worth a mile square of his more ambitious and elaborate cartoon-work. It absolutely lights up and spiritualizes the niche, so dark and so gaudily framed, in which it is set.
Enough has been said: though there are bassi rilievi by Messrs. Timbrell and Bell, and medallions by Pistrucci, and landscape vignettes by Dallas, after Grüner, "still untold:" the one destroying the effect of the other, with a curious prodigality. In short, as a toy this summer-house may be "evened" with certain rooms in the summer-house on the Havel, where the late King of Prussia loved to disport himself [vide Athen. No. 626], or the pleasant castle at Laxenburg, described last autumn by a rambler in Austria [Athen. No. 888]. It is not, in style, up to the Sans Souci or Trianon mark: being, at best, a fantastic whim. As such, Her Majesty's subjects have no right to criticize it; --but if it be referred to as a step in the cause of decorative Art, we must say--"This way no further!"